Monday, June 2, 2008

Sir Paul

Like many Beatles fans, I have ambivalent feelings toward the music of Paul McCartney. Regardless, he's had a remarkable life and when this all-but-authorized biography came out, my Sun-Sentinel editor, the formidable Chauncey Mabe, assigned me to review it.

Published Sunday, November 23, 1997 in the the Sun-Sentinel

PAUL MCCARTNEY: Many Years From Now. Barry Miles. Henry Holt. 654 pp.
In March of 1997, with a tap on the shoulder by Queen Elizabeth, Paul McCartney became Sir Paul, the only Beatle to be knighted — though in 1965, along with John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, he received the Member of the British Empire honor.

The long and winding road that led to this occasion is the oft-told tale of the formation, success and dissolution of the Beatles, the best, brightest, most famous and successful popular musical aggregation in history.

With scores of biographies, reminiscences and memoirs already available, what, then, does this new book offer that is unique?

With the exception of Hunter Davies' authorized 1968 Beatles biography, all the others lacked the active participation of Paul McCartney. This book, Many Years From Now (a better title would have been Yesterday), is essentially the official McCartney version of events.

Written by Barry Miles, co-founder of International Times (a British underground publication from the '60s) and former Apple employee, with the active participation of Sir Paul, this lengthy tome uncritically presents Paul's version of the story of the Beatles' pre-Fab Four days, their early struggles, later successes and eventual excesses.

Given McCartney's unique perspective, his first-person recollections are invaluable and highly worthy of preservation and dissemination. Harrison already has written his autobiography, I Me Mine, with longtime (and recently deceased) Beatles confidante Derek Taylor. Unfortunately, Lennon never wrote his memoirs, though numerous interviews, especially the one given to Playboy's David Sheff, published shortly after his assassination, were sometimes painfully revealing and always enlightening. Even Ringo's memoirs would undoubtedly be interesting, though of limited reliability, perhaps, given the subject's persistent alcoholic haze.

But Miles' book is not labeled "authorized" or "as told to," so the reader assumes some degree of objectivity. Without impugning his motives, there is scarce presentation of anything negative on McCartney's part throughout the book. Indeed, the agenda here is the rehabilitation of McCartney's image. His role as a progressive force on par with Lennon is a constant theme throughout the book, which is puzzling and unnecessary given his prolific accomplishments.

Miles also takes his cue from the works of one of Lennon's most notorious detractors, Albert Goldman, and his infamous The Lives of John Lennon biography which presented Lennon as a hopeless drug addict and his wife, Yoko Ono, as an artistic fraud and a manipulative, self-serving, opportunistic shrike. In fact, given the nature of the characterization of the Widow Lennon in Miles and McCartney's book, it's doubtful that she will be inclined to cooperate and collaborate with McCartney on many future endeavors.

Regardless, Miles does give McCartney's insatiable curiosity, enormous creativity and vast achievements ample coverage. His sprawling narrative, which concludes with the Beatles' breakup (with a brief coda updating Sir Paul's recent accomplishments), covers most significant events in the former Beatle's life in exhaustive detail.

Miles also provides a thoroughly authentic whiff of '60s countercultural earnestness and idealism, as well as its tragically sleazy underbelly of hard drugs and the resultant emotional wreckage. He consistently (and disconcertingly) speaks of himself in the third person through the book and extravagantly recounts his own activities in the context of his subject's life and times. But the bygone era of grooviness and good vibes is recounted with genuine affection absent undue sentimentality, a major achievement given the author's clear attachment to that era.

Considerable space is given to McCartney's recollections of songwriting sessions and his collaborations with Lennon. Beatles fans will especially treasure these bits; in each case Paul recalls the context and content of each member's contribution, graciously allowing Lennon the benefit of any doubt as he soberly but warmly dicusses each tune's origin and the creative dynamics therein.

McCartney's recent foray into the world of classical music is mentioned in Miles' addendum. His first work, the Liverpool Oratorio, was well-received by fans, though the reviewers were less kind. His new piece, Standing Stone, is set for its U.S. debut shortly.

At 654 pages, including index and bibliography, Many Years From Now is best enjoyed by devout Beatles fans or researchers seeking McCartney's take on a particular event. It's difficult to recommend to the uninitiated or casual reader. In addition to its exhaustive text and exhausting prose, the book contains several minor factual errors, as well as the usual first-edition typos. For general readers — or the less fanatical fans — other Beatles-related books may be more rewarding.

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